5 Things I Learned from Working at Shaver’s Creek

by Kristen “Fawn” Mehl, Summer 2016 Environmental Education Intern

This post was originally written at the end of the summer season.

As the summer is winding down, I have taken the time to reflect on my experiences as an intern at Shaver’s Creek. When I first got here I was super excited to start my journey working with raptors, learning about the summer camps held here every summer and what it is like to live on a mountain. I am friends with three former interns, so I had high expectations for what was to come. I am excited to report that my three months here did not disappoint and I have learned more about myself than expected.

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Kristen with a Screech Owl.

1. “Be the change you want to see in the world”

Nature Valley granola bar wrappers, empty ice cream containers, plastic grocery bags, leftover food that got lost in the abyss that is the back of the fridge. These are all items I would have thrown away in Wisconsin, where I lived before coming to the Creek. When I pulled up to the Roost, where the interns live, I was blown away by the amount of recycling bins out front. There seemed to be one for everything, and it was intimidating trying to navigate my way through what was a raw material and what materials were “frankensteined” together to create something else. Each had a special place, and I would often get very frustrated with decoding where everything went. I found myself mumbling, “I wish I could just throw this away!” or “Why can’t this be recycled like everything else!” and continuously let items pile up on the counter in defiance against walking five steps outside to sort them. As an advocate for the environment, I know the benefits of not sending everything into landfills. Yet I kept getting mad that I couldn’t conveniently throw away the plastic film that packaged my snap peas. I had realized just how convenient wasting really is. We throw away so many things because we are either w0n’t take a few extra steps to wash and reuse our plastic Ziploc bags or because where we live simply doesn’t have the resources to recycle them.

Working at Shaver’s Creek, a zero waste facility, has humbled me. It has inspired me to think about waste in various ways, not just what I was throwing away. I knew if I were to make a positive impact on the earth, my wallet, and my peace of mind, I had to start making changes. I found myself trying to use up all the fruit in my fridge before just tossing it into the compost bin, taking the few extra steps in rinsing out the Popsicle wrapper before recycling it and feeling a pang of guilt before throwing things away in town. Although we are surrounded by the convenience of waste, landfills, and minimal recycling, I can feel good about the time I have spent here, knowing even just for a little while I saved our landfills from growing.

2. “Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while you’re waiting.”

I chose Shaver’s Creek as a possible place to work because for years I have dreamed of working with raptors. I would scour the shelves of my local thrift stores in search of old owl paintings to decorate my bedroom walls. I have had a special connection with these magnificent creatures; I would search high in the sky for a soaring hawk or listen closely at the sounds of the night. You can understand my excitement then when Doug Wentzel called to offer me the internship. I would finally get to work with the animals I have admired for so long.

Barred Owl photo by Ben Steines

My first two weeks as an intern were jam-packed as I shadowed our animal care department. From cutting meat to feed our Golden Eagle to training the American Kestrel, I was in heaven. When Torri, our raptor center intern, asked if I would like to help her feed the Barred Owls, I couldn’t stop the smile that slipped onto my face. “Really!?” I asked, expecting her to be half joking. No way could I have been here only two weeks and already get to work so closely with the animals I had been gazing at through the meshed mews. I gathered the dead mice from the sink, and set off with tongs to keep my fingers far away from their sharp beaks. Torri demonstrated holding the mouse inches from their feet, giving them the opportunity to bend down and choose whether or not to take it. Our older female took from the tongs very quickly, and soon it was my turn. I mimicked Torri’s actions, expecting the female to take the mouse just as fast, but she didn’t. To my dismay, I stood there with my arm outstretched for what seemed like hours (in reality, it was probably like three minutes). I waited and got frustrated. My muscles burned. Torri would remind me to be patient. At this point in my life, I had been a nanny for five years, a preschool teacher in a toddler classroom, and shelved books for five hours a day, three times a week. I thought I had the patience thing down pat. I did not. The owl would gaze her giant black eyes in my direction, look down at the mouse, and then hop away. I looked at Torri, defeated, and she kept reminding me to be patient.

After a few minutes, the old female took my mouse and I almost jumped up and down from excitement. One of my goals here was to feed an owl, and I finally had.

Little did I know this was the start of the long process of working with our Eastern Screech Owls, the little raptors who hide out in their boxes during the day that the public rarely catches a glimpse of. Our Screech Owls are often used on programs because of their small size, and are one of the first raptors new interns and SEED students get to hold on the glove. This doesn’t mean the owls like it very much. I don’t blame them, they are nocturnal creatures who stalk their prey in the nighttime. I have been working on rewarding our two-eyed screech owl (who was hit by a car, rendering him flightless) with food every time he would get on my glove. It wasn’t until my second to last week as an intern that he started getting on my glove without biting me first. This may seem like a trivial milestone, but for this little guy, it is a BIG deal. A few days later he started walking for his food, rather than demanding it be brought right to his face.

Working at Shaver’s Creek has made me realize that although my patience for children is pretty high, working with animals is a completely different beast. I never expected that the slightest disturbance from far-away camp singing, the negative energy that has followed me throughout the day, or simply the heat, could affect training so significantly. Birds can pick up on subtle changes in your patterns, your tone, and the energy you give off, whether that be impatience or frustration. The birds might have a bad day because I was having a bad day, and our session wouldn’t be great.

It has taken a little over two months for me to finally see the progress I was hoping for, and although there were times when I wanted to give up, I have watched him go from a very skeptical owl to one that would get on my glove without biting and take small portions of rat from my tongs voluntarily. My patience and persistence has paid off in more ways than expected.

Kristen with a Great-horned Owl.

3. “Those who are observant are rewarded.”

I was fortunate to go on eight traveling naturalist programs during my first two weeks. I would sit attentively, watching Torri captivate the crowd. At the very end of her show, she would speak about how a mentor of hers once said that those who are observant are rewarded. Whoa. What a deep message to relay onto young children. I had considered myself a pretty observant person, often times stopping to watch a flock of birds fly overhead or miss a few seconds of a green light just to watch the clouds move along the sky for a few moments longer. It wasn’t until I really soaked up that message that I became a good observer.

Every chance I could, I would sit on the back deck of the Roost and listen to the birds singing to one another. Our hummingbird feeder would see lots of action, tiny ruby-throats zipping past me, buzzing loud enough to hear. They would stop to take a drink for only a few seconds then fly to a nearby branch before making their descent back to the feeder. I had been known to sit there for nearly an hour watching their patterns and the male defending his territory, urging him to play well with the others. An Eastern Towhee would call to me, “Drink your teaaaaaaaa!” but I never once saw it. It would alert me of its presence every day, allowing me to become very familiar with its song until one morning I looked at Gabe, another intern, over breakfast and said, “I have never once seen that Towhee.” He showed me a picture of what a male looks at, not really giving it a second thought. An hour later, I was walking around the Creek by the flight cage when a shrill voice called out to me to drink my tea. I looked around, knowing it had to be close. Within seconds a black and brown bird the size of a Robin swooped down and landed on a branch right in front of me. It was the Towhee I had been hearing, not the particular one at my house, but a Towhee just the same. I was delighted to have finally seen one. I looked down for one moment when something caught my eye. Under the deck of the upper classroom poked a tiny head of a black rat snake. It looked at me, stuck its tongue in an out, and disappeared back under the porch from which it came. Later that day, I saw two more black rat snakes basking in the sun, among other creatures.

You never know what you might see if you take just a few minutes to stop, look and listen. I have seen more wild box turtles, snakes, birds and groundhogs in Pennsylvania than I have in any other state I have lived. I would like to chalk it up to the great biodiversity happening here, but I think it is because I finally have my eyes open.

4. “Life is what happens between WiFi signals.”

I grew up in the generation that didn’t have cell phones until I was in high school, simply for the fact they were just not a thing. Since then, needless to say, I have become when of those millennials that spends my free time watching Netflix or holding my phone to my face. I was terrified at the thought of spotty service and limited internet access during my time here on the mountain. If I wanted either of these things while at the Roost I would have to go searching around the house and bunker down in places like the far end of the kitchen table or outside on the deck, holding my phone into the air. My bedroom had none, which meant if I wanted to keep connected, I had to spend most of my time upstairs instead of in the coolness that is the basement where my room is located. I almost cried a few times my first week when I couldn’t be in constant contact with my friends from home. All I wanted was to lay in my bed and watch Netflix until I fell asleep. It scared me how much I depended on my phone. I asked many people why there wasn’t WiFi at the Roost, but the same answer always came up. They wanted us to grow as a community of interns, and not spend all of our time with our computers alone in our rooms. They wanted us to be friends. Now, I have done a lot of internships and have lived with twenty people before. I had no issue connecting with other interns with WiFi present, but I decided to keep an open mind because at that point, it was moot.

I will not lie, I struggled really hard with this for a few weeks. By the end of training I started to like the idea of this no WiFi life. I went to bed earlier, slept great and woke up earlier to start my day. I spent time reading books on our back deck, crossing out over ten of various genres from my list of things I wanted to read someday. It became freeing to not have the accessibility to the outside world as previously before. There are still some cons to being so disconnected, like having my mother constantly ask why we can’t Facetime for my father’s birthday or not being able to email my co-director at my seasonal job in Wisconsin. To combat this, I often frequented the local library in State College and got a library card (I now have four from all different states!).

Torri “Caddisfly” Withrow with a barn owl.

There is a certain calmness that comes from being disconnected that I would like to take with me into the future. I do not need to have my phone in my face constantly in order to feel connected, I can connect to nature and the world around me instead. It was nice not knowing what was happening in the political world or the notes from Facebook letting me know so and so got engaged over the weekend. Exploring and taking the time to be observant will give us a much richer life, full of wonder and curiosity for the birds that fly around our backyards and the groundhog searching for food on the side of the road. I know we live in a world so full of technology, but it has been a nice reminder for myself that I can and should go without it from time to time.

5. “Wee ah hey, wee a ho, everything is beautiful”

If you haven’t met our Raptor Center intern Torri, AKA “Caddisfly,” then you are truly missing out. I have mentioned her a lot in this series of blog posts and that is because she truly is such a light here at Shaver’s Creek and I have learned so much from her. She has been with the Creek for three seasons, starting last summer as a counselor. One night on the back porch of the intern house, she sat upon the railing with her beautifully painted Ukulele and sang. She sang some covers with Gabe and she sang some of her originals. I was inside at the kitchen table when I heard the most magical lyrics being belted out into the evening sky. “Wee ah hey, wee ah ho, everything is beautiful.” Like so many others who have heard Caddisfly, I questioned what this meant. I am the type of person who likes to know the meaning of all things, but in this moment I just listened. A few nights later at our practice run of what would be our Friday night tradition as interns, Torri got up in Raccoons Hallow and sang the song once more at our mock campfire. She gave us the backstory of her song, how her mentor Susan Fowler once sang those words to her, and I fell in love with the music. Once camp started, I noticed many of our previous Leaders in Training (LIT) and campers were saddened by the lack of Caddisfly at the Friday night campfire. They especially missed her song. During my two weeks as a counselor, the LIT’s would hum the tune to her original, and campers would become giddy over recognizing the melody. The last campfire Caddisfly graced us with her presence and sang her song one last time. I looked around astonished at the amount of embracing the campers did as they sang along to the chorus. “Wee ah hey, wee ah ho, everything is beautiful.”

I have only spent three months at Shaver’s Creek, but I have gained so many wonderful memories and have grown as a person in ways I didn’t know I needed to grow. Torri’s words have echoed through me, and have allowed me to see that truly, everything is beautiful. From the mountain tops to the pink sunsets, the fear that we overcome while entering unknown caves, proverbial or not. All the emotions that have gotten me here have created such a beautiful life for myself, one that I could not have imagined. And when I need a reminder of just how beautiful this life is, I will hum Torri’s song. Wee ah hey, wee a ho, everything is beautiful.

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